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NYT details Matthew Shepard 20/20 piece: McKinney is a self-loathing bisexual, so it isn't a hate crime

The NYT has seen the 20/20 revisionist history piece on the killing of Matthew Shepard (airing tonight), that reports it was a mere robbery fueled by drugs that “went wrong,” and that Shepard was also a meth user. The article is almost fawning in support of reporter Elizabeth Vargas’s argument that it was not a bias crime. The bigger “news,” based on an interview with one man, a limo driver, is that one of the killers, Aaron McKinney, is bisexual. McKinney denies this today, and in fact used a gay panic defense at the time.

In October 1998, Mr. Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, was found tied to a fence on the outskirts of town. He’d been pistol-whipped and left shoeless in near-freezing temperatures; he was almost dead. Friends who heard about his beating instantly began to tell reporters that he was gay and that his attack might have been an instance of gay-bashing.

Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, Matthew Shepard’s killers.

Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were arrested. Mr. McKinney’s girlfriend told the press that he had lashed out when Mr. Shepard came onto him. As people across the country held candlelight vigils, this became the dominant refrain: Mr. Shepard was attacked because he was gay.

Then Mr. Shepard died. His funeral was picketed by chilling figures whose placards said he deserved it. Also in attendance were antiviolence activists, who wore white angel get-ups.

As Ms. Vargas says, the crime’s stakes then came through plainly: tolerance versus hate, good versus evil. The parable drawn from the crime was supplemented with beauty shots of Mr. Shepard that made him look like a frail James Dean, and arraignment photos of Mr. McKinney and Mr. Henderson that made them look like tight-lipped white power people.

So the details of the extent of Aaron McKinney’s meth habit come out (this was brought up at the trial, so where is the new information…that’s coming), and they now claim the gay-panic story wasn’t true, just a misguided tactic.

Mr. McKinney now says that he and his defense team cooked up a gay-panic defense – the one that said he responded violently when hit on by a man – though it wasn’t true. Mr. McKinney’s girlfriend, the early proponent of the gay-panic story, has also recanted. For his part, Mr. Henderson, whom Ms. Vargas interviewed in an undisclosed prison, comes across as deeply depressed, almost lifeless. Looking at a picture of himself as an Eagle Scout posing with the governor of Wyoming, he says, “He got lost, on his path.” The photo, he adds, “is me as a smart kid, not a stupid adult.”

The report also says Shepard was a meth user and that he knew McKinney. The interview also includes information from a male limo driver that purports to have participated in sex with McKinney, who denies having had sex with men.

It turns out that if you like high life in the high plains, you go for limousines – namely, the rental fleet owned and chauffeured by Doc O’Connor. Mr. Shepard hired one of these, which Mr. O’Connor drove, to get to a gay bar one night in Fort Collins, Colo. Mr. O’Connor noticed he was upset on the drive home, and later, Mr. O’Connor tells Ms. Vargas, Mr. Shepard told him he was H.I.V. positive. “20/20” relies heavily on the interview with Mr. O’Connor, who comes across as an invention of David Lynch. (His accusations are not confirmed with anyone else on camera.)

But that’s not the end of Mr. O’Connor’s involvement in this story. In defending himself from charges of homophobia Mr. McKinney says, noxiously, “I have gay friends,” which gives the documentary a chance for a bravura transition.

“One of McKinney’s gay friends may have been Matthew Shepard,” Ms. Vargas says in voice-over.

What? They knew each other?

Mr. McKinney denies it to Ms. Vargas, but “20/20” then produces several interviews with people who had seen the men together. And then a bomb is dropped.

Mr. O’Connor, ever the mixer here, volunteers that Mr. McKinney didn’t hate gays because “I know of an instance where he had a three-way – two guys and one girl at a party, an all-nighter.” After confirming that Mr. McKinney had had sex with the man of the trio, Ms. Vargas asks Mr. O’Connor how he knows about such an intimate experience.

“Because he did it with me,” the limo driver says.

Now what does this prove? That Mr. McKinney was bisexual, as his girlfriend goes on to confirm? (Mr. McKinney denies that he has ever had sex with a man.) Does that mean he wasn’t homophobic? And as for the news about Mr. Shepard – so what if he did meth or had H.I.V.?

Also, the NYT reports that Shepard’s parents, have taken the position that the documentary is filled with errors.

That said, if all that above information is correct, it does change the motive, but not the homophobia itself. McKinney was clearly troubled and scared of being labeled as bisexual or gay. Not only that, he was willing to use a “gay panic” defense to deflect attention from his own homosexual acts. It brings to light, yet again, how much more complicated people’s relationships are with their own sexuality. The man is still denying it — apparently being gay or bisexual is more shameful than killing someone.

Earlier posts here and here.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding